Melvin Waters is legally blind, a result of suffering from macular degeneration. But he can still see and smell that time in late April 1945 when he came upon the Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northwest Germany.
Historians say about 70,000 Jews, Russians, and other prisoners died at Bergen-Belsen during World War II. Among those who perished was Anne Frank, who died of typhus in early March 1945 only weeks before the camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 by a British armored division. Soldiers discovered roughly 53,000 prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, most of them half-starved and seriously ill.
Waters, an ambulance driver, arrived a little more than a week after the camp was liberated. He was assigned the duty of stretcher bearer.
Twenty years old, Waters never imagined this. He grew up in Lancaster, Texas, the son of a yeast salesman. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, at age seventeen, Waters tried in vain to join the war effort: first signing on with the Marine Corps and then the Army Air Corps. Both rejected him after he failed physicals. Unbeknownst to him he had high blood pressure. Then in the spring of 1944 he saw an advertisement in the Dallas Morning News and got a chance to join the war as an ambulance driver for American Foreign Service, an organization that was recruiting drivers and rounding up U.S.-made Dodge ambulances to support British and other foreign troops.
Waters was shipped overseas with platoons of other American drivers and in early 1945 they accompanied British, Polish, New Zealander, and Canadian troops up the boot of Italy through France to Belgium and Holland and across the Rhine into Germany.
“We came out of the woods and there on our left was the concentration camp. We were pretty close to the front of the convoy and I noticed that the convoy slowed down to a very slow pace,” Waters said. “And I guess I must have questioned what was going on. And then about that time I looked over to the left and there was a concentration camp. It was the first I knew we were going to a concentration camp.”
What did you see?
“There were a lot of people milling around and lot of them outside with striped convict uniforms on and people just kind of acted like they were in a stupor.”
They seemed in a daze?
“They stared blankly. They looked at us and looked right through us. There was barbed wire. The gate was wide open. A lot of them were outside in a ditch and they just looked like they didn’t know what to do. This was before any evacuation.”
“There were ashes everywhere and the smell: It was the most awful smell I’ve ever smelled,” he said.
Bergen-Belsen was first used to imprison Russian soldiers and then, starting in 1943, housed Jews and others. The Germans burned the bodies of thousands of prisoners in the camp’s crematorium. When it was liberated an estimated 13,000 unburied corpses were lying around the camp.
Waters helped transport those in the women’s barracks to a make-shift hospital. The first woman they approached tried to fight them off, throwing up her arms in defense. She feared that they were going to take her to the crematorium, where Waters said rumor had it the Germans burned alive weakened prisoners.
“She was very frail and completely out of her head,” he said. “Skin and bones.”
“She was in a bottom bunk and the British soldiers were taking her clothes off and we were there with a stretcher and we had to help her. She had a dress on and we took it off of her and wrapped her in a blanket.”
How old was she?
“It’s hard to say. All of them looked old, whether they were young or middle-aged or anything else. Being in a concentration camp they all looked like old women.”
They transported her to one of the small huts near the hospital that was set up in a former S.S. barracks. “We turned them into receiving stations. They would all be stripped of clothing. They cut their hair, de-liced them, put some clean clothing on them, and sent them to the hospital.”
“We used two men to a stretcher. We made probably a dozen trips a day or something like that. We had to line up. We had 72 men there eventually. We kept getting men from other platoons. We had near 50 ambulances there. That’s not official. We had the British medical team and I have pictures of them when they had protective gear. We all got gray hair.”
“That dusting that they put on you (to kill lice).”
“The ones we picked up were all too weak. The doctors, they were checking on the ones they could save and passing up on the ones that they couldn’t save.”
What did that feel like?
“You got where you didn’t have any feeling. You really did. Boy the smell was terrible. We drove up out of there and we passed a pit where they were stacking bodies. They had a flatbed truck and they had German prisoners and some men from the village down in the hole stacking bodies.”
In the ensuing weeks Waters was put on yard duty “which consisted of putting a German rifle on my shoulder and walking around tents at night.”
After the war, Waters said he didn’t talk much about his war experience and the liberation of the camp. In recent years, however, people have become more and more curious and have asked questions. And he tells his story.
In 2005, Waters returned to Bergen-Belsen, accompanied by two of his daughters and his wife, Josephine. “It was the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation. The official date was April 15.”
“It had a little museum at the time, but since they have built a big museum. They were going to reconstruct one of our ambulances.”
“I met a lot of Germans. The first time I ever gave a talk was in Hamburg. Just try to talk about a concentration camp to a bunch of young Germans. They were a good audience. But I didn’t say a lot. When the question-and-answer portion of the program came they did ask some questions that were embarrassing.”
What kinds of questions?
“Ones like you’re asking. They would ask how the people looked and how they were treated. Knowing that their parents and grandparents were involved in it. I thought of that.”
Have you forgiven them?
“I personally didn’t feel that way. I felt how can any human do this to another human? I guess I think more about it now than then.”
Is it important to tell your story?
“I don’t know. I didn’t tell it for years. It’s funny that more people are more interested in it now, since I went back for the sixtieth anniversary. In fact I saw this morning on TV they were talking about the liberation of Belgium because it was Anne Frank’s birthday.”
In May 2012, Waters was invited to an event hosted by the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance where he met Margaret Hopkovitz, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen camp who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“She was sitting on the side by herself and someone told me she was over there and when I went over there and introduced myself to her and I got to talking to her.”
What did she say?
“She was very polite. She was not very talkative. I don’t remember what she said. I know she took my hand.”